Gymnastics Benefits

Oconee Gymnastics Benefits

 

Gymnastics Benefits

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USA Gymnastics Online: Technique: Why Gymnastics?

 

 

Gymnastics Benefits
By Wm A. Sands, Ph.D.
Motor Behavior Research Laboratory
Department of Exercise and Sport Science
University of Utah

Gymnastics is an activity of ancient origins and modern tensions. Most large and medium
size cities and towns have a private gymnastics school or offer gymnastics activities via a
park district, public school, Turners, Sokol, or YMCA (Our town has Oconee Gymnastics & Cheer). Media attention toward gymnastics
has continued to grow, making gymnastics one of the top television-audience draws.
Gymnastics at the top levels continues to draw attention. It has developed a large and
vigorous “fan” following, as well as and developed some controversy as it has undergone
modern growing pains. Little information has been offered regarding the benefits of
gymnastics to those who are headed for Olympic glory and those not destined to reach such
levels. People may justifiably ask:
What are gymnastics benefits?
I would like to organize gymnastics benefits and limitations in several categories for
ease of understanding: (a) physical, (b) psycho-social, and (c) miscellaneous. I would like to
balance my treatment of benefits with appropriate discussion of some of the limitations of
gymnastics participation. In this way, I hope to provide an even treatment of gymnastics so
that parents, gymnasts, and coaches may better understand what gymnastics can and cannot
do.
Physical Gymnastics Benefits
1. Gymnastics is an anaerobic sport.
Anaerobic means “without oxygen.” Gymnasts tend to have middling levels of aerobic
(with oxygen) capacity (13). However, gymnasts are among the strongest and most flexible
of all athletes (27, 38). Gymnastics performances usually last under 90 seconds. The level
of intensity of the activities is too high for long-term performance such as seen in endurance
sport long duration events like the marathon.
Most sports are anaerobic in nature. Only the long term endurance sports such as cycling,
swimming, and running are largely aerobic. Gymnastics is an “acyclic” sport which means
that the same movements are not repeated over and over (6). There are numerous benefits to
cyclic, long-term endurance sports but variety is generally not one of them. One of the
major benefits of gymnastics activity is that it subjects the gymnast’s body to a wide variety
of stimuli. Repeating the same movement patterns over and over has recently been
questioned (57). And, the generally assumed superiority of aerobic training has been shown
to be illusory for many areas of fitness, particularly with regard to weight loss (5, 60).
2. Gymnasts are among the strongest, pound for pound, of all the Olympic athletes.
Gymnasts are strong in what is termed “relative strength” (48). Gymnasts demonstrate their
strength by being able to move their bodies through a myriad of positions. Their strength is
high when expressed relative to their body weight. “Absolute strength” is the term
sometimes applied to strength that is expressed by moving some object or opponent. For
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example, football lineman and shot putters have large absolute strength while gymnasts and
martial artists have large relative strength (43). One of the major determinants of absolute
strength is physical size. Large people tend to be strong in absolute terms, while smaller
people are less strong. Strength is one of the major redeeming characteristics of gymnastics.
Gymnasts tend to develop upper body strength more than many other sports (7, 38, 47, 58).
3. Gymnasts are among the most flexible of all athletes.
Gymnastics emphasizes flexibility due to the need for gymnasts to adopt certain specific
positions in order to perform skills. The flexibility demands of gymnastics are probably the
most significant and unique aspects of gymnastics that serves to separate gymnastics from
most other sports (54).
It is believed that flexibility can be an effective aid to the reduction of injury, preventing
athletes from forcing a limb to an injurious range of motion (24, 27-29, 34). Flexibility can
also be overdone when a gymnast relies on an increased range of motion in inappropriate
positions, particularly the spine (8, 10, 35, 64, 66, 68). However, the research on
gymnastics’ contribution to spine disorders and disc degeneration has been mixed (69). Care
should be taken to ensure that gymnasts develop flexibility in appropriate postures (30), and
that appropriate and planned progressions are used in developing new ranges of motion (50,
51, 55).
4. Gymnasts are very good at both static and dynamic balance.
Gymnastics has an entire event for women devoted to the concept of balance – the balance
beam. The men also have an event that requires extraordinary balance abilities – pommel
horse. Of course, handstands are probably the single most recognized balance skills. The
still rings in men’s gymnastics is an underrated balance event which requires the gymnast to
continuously keep the movable rings under himself. Gymnasts learn to balance on their feet
and their hands. Interestingly, gymnasts tend to develop a higher tolerance for imbalance or
disturbances to their balance. Gymnasts do not react with as large a “startle response” to
sudden imbalances as nongymnasts. This probably means that gymnasts can tolerate larger
disturbances to their posture because they have become more familiar with these positions
and do not consider them to be such a threat (7, 11, 26).
5. Gymnasts learn early to fall without injuring themselves (16, 49).
Because gymnastics is performed on mats, the gymnast learns to fall and roll to spread the
forces of impact over a larger area and time. Considerable effort is expended in the early
teaching of gymnasts to roll – partly as a skill in itself and partly as a prerequisite to other
skills. Learning to fall helps the gymnast avoid injury. Fall-training can help prevent
injuries in most sports. Gymnasts acquire a very “cat-like” ability to right themselves and to
fall without being hurt (3, 53).
6. Gymnasts are among the smallest and lightest of athletes (33).
Gymnastics is somewhat unique in that it provides competitive opportunities for the
smallest and lightest athletes. Many sports are clearly biased to prefer athletes who are tall
and/or big. Sports that cater to smaller athletes usually involve weight classes which limit
the number of small athletes who can participate (i.e., one per team) (76). Smallness is
actually beneficial for gymnasts in performing better and avoiding injury (4, 59).
Being small and light can be taken to extremes that are clearly unhealthy. The issue of
eating disorders and the unbridled attempt to reduce body weight at all costs has plagued
some gymnasts (1, 17, 22, 32, 36, 37, 40-42, 45, 46, 65, 70). However, gymnastics is not
alone in this problem. Moreover, gymnastics is neither necessary nor sufficient for the
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development of eating disorders.
In eating disorders, there are a constellation of factors that contribute to a behavior,
but these can be classified into 3 areas: (a) predisposing, (b) enabling, and (c)
reinforcing. Predisposing factors might be: low self esteem, neuroticism, narcissism,
obsessive/compulsive behavior, depression, and a predominantly external locus of
control. These do not meet the criteria for causation, however. Excessive exercise and
athletic participation may be enabling factors for the expression of these negative
personality traits and not a cause of these behaviors. Daily exposure to the general
milieu of athletics, coaches, parents, etc. may provide the reinforcing factors
necessary to sustain the negative personality traits. (12, emphasis mine)
The distinction between predisposing, enabling, and reinforcing factors versus causative
factors is essential to understanding disordered eating and the role that gymnastics may
play. Many sports that involve female athletes and exercisers also suffer disordered eating
problems (18, 23, 25, 31, 36, 39, 63, 67, 73-75). And, disordered eating is prevalent in
many sub-groups of females from high school students (61, 62) to medical students (21).
Finally, disordered eating is also becoming more prevalent among male athletes (2, 72).
7. Gymnastics is a reasonably safe sport.
Although there are numerous sources of information on injury in sport, the Consumer
Product Safety Commission is one of the best. Table 1 shows the number of people visiting
hospital emergency rooms in 1997 (56). Note that hunting injuries are not included. In some
cases, injuries caused by using equipment are separated from the activity, such as
swimming. The number of people visiting emergency rooms is listed after the
equipment/activity and the percentage of patients admitted to a hospital is shown in
parentheses.
Table 1.
Sport/Activity Number (% of Visits
Admissions)
1. Basketball 644,921 (0.6)
2. Bicycling (including mountain biking) 567,002 (3.6)
3. Football 334,420 (1.4)
4. Baseball 326,569 (1.1)
5. Skating (roller, ice, and in-line) 201,150 (2.6)
6. Soccer 148,913 (1.1)
7. Track and field (including exercise equipment) 140,756 (3.1)
8. Snow Skiing 84,190 (5.5)
9. Trampolines 82,722 (3.0)
10. Other sports and cheerleading 78,694 (0.8)
11. Hockey 77,492 (0.9)
12. Swings and swing sets 73,923 (2.0)
13. Fishing 72,598 (0.8)
14. Monkey bars and playground climbing equipment 71,828 (3.5)
15. Volleyball 67,340 (0.5)
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Note that the table indicates only those sports that recorded 10,000 or more injuries. There
are numerous ways to interpret the information above. For example, trampolines are ranked
number nine, but the trampolines in question are primarily the backyard-type trampoline.
Horseback riding is ranked seventeenth, but the hospitalization rate is nine percent. One can
probably assume that the reason for the moderate incidence of injury, but relatively higher
rate of hospitalization is that the rider falls quite a distance from the top of a horse.
Gymnastics ranks 24th in the list, placing it near the middle of surveyed activities.
Gymnastics ranks somewhat above average in hospital admissions. Of course, this
information represents all of gymnastics, including injuries that occur in the yard while
doing cartwheels or from striking the furniture while performing in the living room. In
competitive gymnastics, particularly the highest levels, the injury rate is higher.
Unfortunately, there is little reliable information on the national extent of the highest
competitive level injuries (9). Those competitive gymnasts who are injured severely enough
to require an emergency room visit are likely represented in Table 1. However, those who
are injured less severely may never visit an emergency room and deal with treatment via
16. Swimming pools (exclud. diving boards & other
equip) 62,812 (3.8)
17. Horseback Riding 58,709 (9.0)
18. Weight lifting 56,724 (1.2)
19. All-terrain vehicles 55,400 (7.5)
20. Slides and Sliding boards 45,767 (2.7)
21. Wrestling 39,829 (1.7)
22. Golf (excluding golf carts) 39,473 (2.3)
23. Snowboarding 37,638 (2.5)
24. Gymnastics 33,373 (3.2)
25. Dancing 30,378 (2.1)
26. Powered trail bikes and minibikes 28,677 (5.1)
27. Swimming (activity only) 72,681 (1.4)
28. Sleds 26,067 (3.6)
29. Playground equipment (excluding swings and
climbing) 52,374 (1.5)
30. Martial Arts 24,123 (1.5)
31. Bowling 23,317 (1.5)
32. Tennis 22,294 (3.5)
33. Bleachers 19,443 (1.2)
34. Go carts 18,497 (3.9)
35. Guns (gas, air or spring-loaded) 17,923 (2.0)
36. Guns (BB or pellet) 16,148 (2.8)
37. Grills (all types) 16,088 (3.1)
38. Snowmobiles 12,676 (2.0)
39. Amusement rides and attractions 1,768 (2.9)
40. Water skiing 10,657 (2.8)
41. Squash, racquet ball, paddle ball 10,438 (1.8)
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simple first-aid or a visit to their personal physician.
Of course, without a “denominator,” we cannot know the rate of gymnastics injury. In order
to fully understand gymnastics injury, we need to know the number of injuries that occur
relative to the number of participants who are exposed to a potential injury. There are a
number of figures indicating the total participants in gymnastics that are widely varying
from approximately 50 thousand to nearly a million (15). Most research on gymnastics
injury at the highest competitive levels has shown that injury rates are comparable to
football and wrestling (9). Any number of reasons can be cited for the relatively high injury
rate of gymnasts at the highest levels. Certainly, these athletes are more visible than athletes
at lower levels, are studied more frequently, and are also subjected to higher numbers of
repetitions while performing the most difficult skills.
The gymnastics community has reacted strongly to the problem of injury by both regulatory
and environmental means. When skills are identified as being particularly injury prone,
these skills are subject to much greater scrutiny and are sometimes restricted in their use
(44, 52). Restrictions occurred with the Yurchenko vault and 11/2 forward somersault.
Moreover, the increasing use of foam pits, soft landing mats, and attention to conditioning
have done much to keep pace with the “space-age” skills of the modern gymnast. Surely,
more work needs to be done in this area, with this author particularly committed to rooting
out the issues related to injury, studying them, and producing effective means of prevention.
Psycho-Social Gymnastics Benefits
Gymnasts tend to do very well in school. The College Gymnastics Association has kept
track of men’s gymnastics teams’ average GPAs. Table 2 shows the top 20 GPAs by rank in
men’s gymnastics. There are a number of ways to interpret GPA information. Particularly
relevant are the athletes’ academic majors. Short of this complete information, the GPA data
shown below still indicates that gymnasts are serious about their education. Scholastic AllAmerica
Teams in women’s NCAA gymnastics are ranked in Table 3 below. There are 64
NCAA Division I women’s gymnastics teams. Assuming 12 scholarships per team, that
places the opportunities for female gymnasts at approximately 768 scholarships. Moreover,
there are a number of Division II teams that also offer scholarships. Each scholarship is
worth approximately $15,000 per year depending on a variety of factors such as the
particular school and local cost of living. Clearly, the potential for a university education at
reduced cost is one of the primary benefits of all sport participation. Gymnastics is a unique
and exciting way of going to college.
Table 2.
Academic Teams – Men’s NCAA Gymnastics
University – GPA University – GPA University – GPA University – GPA
1. MIT – 3.553 6. BYU – 3.144 11. Michigan State –
3.039 16. Air Force – 2.919
2. Illinois – 3.306 7. Michigan – 3.130 12. Army – 3.070 17. Minnesota – 2.915
3. Ohio State –
3.273 8. Oklahoma – 3.115 13. Wm & Mary – 3.033 18. Ill-Chicago –
2.880
4. Nebraska – 3.159 9. Syracuse – 3.107 14. Massachusetts – 2.989 19. Vermont – 2.854
10. California –
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Table 3.
Academic All-America Teams – Women’s NCAA Gymnastics
Gymnastics is a complex sport with many dramatic and subtle nuances. Educational
experiences in gymnastics reach from physics to the appreciation of cultural diversity. One
of the most important benefits of gymnastics activity is that the gymnast can experience a
variety of things rather than just read about them. For example, physicists discuss the
principle of conservation of angular momentum while the gymnast experiences it. The
physics teacher may discuss moment of inertia and its relation to angular momentum, but
the gymnast can see and feel it while performing skills. The richness of such experiences
goes far beyond reading about them in a book. Recently, a National Science Foundation
grant has used gymnastics as a means of teaching fundamental physics to students.
Gymnastics shares with other sports the opportunity to learn about teamwork,
sportsmanship, fair play, dedication, and so forth. Sometimes these character traits may be
considered old-fashioned, but gymnastics does provide a terrific opportunity for teaching
these characteristics. Because gymnastics is so very difficult to perform, the learning time is
long when compared to most sports (6, 50). The long time required to attain mastery of the
fundamental skills requires patience, dedication, perseverance, and planning. Gymnastics
helps people learn to work hard for objectives that can take years to achieve. In the modern
world of quick-fixes, instant communication, instant hamburgers, and instant entertainment,
there still needs to be a place for young people to develop their character. Although it may
sound corny, gymnastics is a perfect activity for such development.
Gymnasts of even modest ability can compete in local, state, and regional level
competitions. These competitions afford the opportunity for travel, meeting people of varied
and diverse backgrounds, and seeing places that would normally be bypassed. The recent
dramatic increase in participation by gymnasts in “General Gymnastics” serves to
emphasize a newly developed outlet for training and competition that does not emphasize
Olympic-level pursuits. Group exhibition-type displays involving tumbling, acrosports,
balance, and music can be an exciting and rewarding activity for young gymnasts. The
General Gymnastics area of USA Gymnastics has developed competitions (called
TeamGymn competitions) for these displays, and the groups travel both nationally and
internationally.
5. Iowa – 3.151 3.098 15. Navy – 2.959 20. New Mex. – 2.809
University – GPA University – GPA
1. Winona State – 3.716 11. Alabama – 3.384
2. Southern Utah – 3.549 12. Penn State – 3.360
3. Lousiana State – 3.505 13. North Carolina State – 3.350
4. SE Missouri State – 3.482 14. U Illinois-Champaign – 3.350
5. U Alaska-Anchorage – 3.452 15. Kent State – 3.334
6. U Wisconsin-LaCrosse – 3.430 16. Bowling Green State – 3.330
7. Central Michigan – 3.400 17. Yale – 3.322
8. George Washington – 3.399 18. Seattle Pacific – 3.300
9. North Carolina – 3.396 19. Univ Pennsylvania – 3.290
10. Utah – 3.390 20. Nebraska – 3.286
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Education is perhaps the most important part of gymnastics. When an activity can be
naturally orchestrated to provide participants with unique and valuable experiences, it
serves the participants more than any book, television show, or website.
Gymnastics provides a unique and valuable social education and experience. The most
successful female gymnasts pursue success rather than avoid failure, and have the highest
self-esteem when compared to other members of the senior national team (20). Although
pursuit of success versus avoidance of failure may seem like a subtle difference between
groups of gymnasts, pursuit of success indicates a “healthier” outlook on competition. High
self esteem indicates that the gymnasts are pleased with themselves, can function
independently, and are self-reliant. The quotation below was unsolicited from a parent of a
gymnast. The quotation appeared on the USA Gymnastics WEB site.
“Not only do the gymnast [sic] acquire the ability to focus on an activity while
blocking out what’s going on around them, my daughter learned valuable timemanagement
skills that carried over into all her activities and school.
The focusing ability helped her at a musical competition when a quartet started in the
next room at a totally different tempo and loud enough so that she had a difficult time
hearing her accompaniest [sic]. The adjucator [sic] came out and congratulated her
on her ability to continue her piece the way it was supposed to be instead of letting
the other music bother her.
As to time-management skills – we can all use some of this [sic]! Now as a college
student she is able to finish her work (as an architecture major) as required despite
having to fit in 20+ hours of practice a week. This helped her all through high school
when she was on a school and a club team and managed to maintain a 95 cumulative
average with AP and honors courses while juggling two sets of workouts and multiple
meets a week. During HS season her grades actually improved!
Focusing and time-management are the two main advantages I give parents for the
sport. This is over and above the self-satisfaction, self-esteem, team building abilities,
and other obvious reasons for the sport.”
(C. Hill, Sunday, November 15, 1998 03:46 PM)
The cultural and social identity of the gymnast offers an unambiguous role for the young
person. Recent experience with elite track and field has shown that athletes and coaches are
acutely aware of the fact that females in track and field are faced with a role conflict by
being a “bigger than average” woman in a society that prefers a petite and slender female.
Female gymnasts particularly enjoy being among the petite and slender females that are
often socially most acceptable. Although gymnasts can be tiny, late maturing, and so forth;
the public usually has a misconception about how young gymnasts really are. Moreover, the
gymnast’s small size might be a limitation in most sports, while gymnastics allows the petite
girl to excel. The male gymnast sometimes faces a misunderstanding relative to the
masculinity of the sport, but experience has shown that other athletes realize how difficult
gymnastics is and do not question that athleticism of the male gymnast.
Miscellaneous Gymnastics Benefits
Drug abuse in gymnastics, while not unknown, is extremely limited (19). Drug abuse was
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common in the former Eastern Bloc, particularly East Germany (14). Drug use and abuse
among gymnasts in the West has been extremely limited, and until recently almost
unknown. Athletes in many sports have experimented with drugs. Perhaps fortunately,
gymnasts do not enhance their performance by the typical anabolic steroids, stimulants, and
other drugs that can assist other athletes for a short period. Gymnasts do not require an allout
strength or power – but power under control. Gymnasts do not require an all-out
endurance – but endurance under control. When a drug interferes with control (as most do),
their benefit to gymnasts is highly questionable.
Gymnastics has developed a Code of Ethics that is a position statement to which all
members of USA Gymnastics must adhere (71). Gymnastics has done a good job in
policing its ranks by banning participation and membership of those people who behave in
an unethical manner. At the current time, many former coaches have been banned from
participation in USA Gymnastics events due to previous unethical behavior.
Conclusion
Gymnastics is a terrific sport for young people. Many people have grown up in and by
gymnastics to become doctors, lawyers, teachers, business people, professors, police
officers, nurses, scientists, and many others. Gymnastics provides an outstanding way for
young people to test their mettle against themselves and others. Gymnastics can provide
opportunities for physical development, character development, and education that are hard
to find anywhere else.
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This article appears in the March 1999 issue of Technique, Vol. 19, No. 3.

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